Back to IndieWire

The Best Black American Films of the 21st Century, From ‘Straight Outta Compton’ to ‘Black Panther’

In the year of "Black Panther" and a summer movie season with two highly anticipated black movies, the time is right to celebrate the last two decades of black cinema in the U.S.

"Barbershop," "Black Panther," "12 Years a Slave," "Moonlight," "Django Unchained," "Love & Basketball"

“Barbershop,” “Black Panther,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Moonlight,” “Django Unchained,” and “Love & Basketball”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock, Marvel/Disney/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock, Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock, David Bornfriend/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock, Columbia/The Weinstein Compaany/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock, Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

13. “Hustle & Flow”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock (1991366v) Hustle and Flow - Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. Hustle and Flow - 2005

Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson in “Hustle & Flow”

Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock

When “Hustle & Flow” first premiered at Sundance in 2005, no one knew what to expect. We had a new director (Craig Brewer) on the scene with Terrence Howard — after over 30 films to his credit — finally attempting to break out in a lead role. Most of the rap films we had seen at the time were set either in New York or LA, but this entertaining story takes place in the South, specifically Memphis, Tenn.

Howard, sporting a James Brown perm, plays an aspiring drug dealer and pimp named Djay looking to change his game and become a rapper. With Anthony Anderson acting as his producer/sound man and Taraji P. Henson, Taryn Manning and Paula Jai Parker as his workabee/backup singers, Djay has to deal with the daily grinds of making ends meet while putting together a demo for his hopeful meeting with a local legend who made it out of the hood. Along with a song (“It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”) that the won the Academy Award and Howard’s show-stopping performance — which netted him a Best Actor nod — “Hustle & Flow” certainly is among the emotional, uplifting feel good films that folks love to watch more than once. —WM

12. “Hidden Figures”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by 20th Century Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (7727326c) Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae 'Hidden Figures' Film - 2016 HIDDEN FIGURES is the incredible untold story of brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation?s confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, and more in “Hidden Figures”

20th Century Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The top-earning Best Picture nominee of 2017 ($236 million), “Hidden Figures” presented three brilliant black women who just wanted to do their jobs. And they did: their expertise at a NASA field center helped send the first Americans into orbit, an extra-amazing feat since each was hobbled by segregation laws still in effect in the early ’60s. Mathematician Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) had to trek a half-mile to use the bathroom at work; Dorothy Vaughan was reprimanded for conducting research in a library’s whites-only section; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) went to court seeking enrollment in an off-limits engineering program.

Rated PG, the film aimed to be widely accessible, including a love story (between Henson and her previous “Curious Case of Benjamin Button” co-star Mahershala Ali), friendship excursions, historical context, and countdown drama. Budgeted at just $25 million, writer-director-producer Theodore Melfi delivered the first live-action, non-franchise film in six years that featured multiple female leads and registered successive victories at the weekend box office (its predecessor: “The Help”). The source material was Margot Lee Shetterly’s eponymous book, optioned before publication by 20th Century Fox. Beyond acknowledging the accomplishments of this trio and their peers, and the continued need for women in STEM jobs, “Hidden Figures” produced perhaps the most scholarly Barbie doll to ever sell out.—JM

11. “Pariah”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Chicken And Egg/Mbk/Northstar/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5878429e) Adepero Oduye Pariah - 2011 Director: Dee Rees Chicken And Egg Pictures/Mbk Entertainment/Northstar Pictures USA Scene Still Drama

“Pariah”

Chicken And Egg/Mbk/Northstar/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

So many black LGBTQ pioneers have enacted social change in the queer community. Marsha P. Johnson was one of the first transgender activists in America. She threw the first stone that kicked off the Stonewall riots. But establishing LGBTQ identity in African American families has always been a complicated endeavor. To this day, far more black youth face stigmatization and ostracization for coming out as gay than their peers in white communities. Dee Rees’ “Pariah,” a raw and intimate look at a young girl’s path to identity and sexuality, is what first introduced audiences to her unflinching lens of examination.

Adepero Oduye stars as Alike, who while seeking love discovers the most elusive love to story fulfill – falling for yourself. From the opening shot, where Alike shyly ogles exotic dancers grinding before her eyes, there is no doubt about her sexuality. Though it takes her longer to admit it to her family, the consequences of her coming out to her religious mother are dire. Still, she remains defiant in the final frames. Reciting her poetry, she proclaims: “I am not broken, I am free,” a universal sentiment for anyone, gay or straight, who remains unapologetic of their truth. —JC

10. “Inside Man”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1578435a) Inside Man, Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor Film and Television

Denzel Washington and Chiwetel Ejiofor in “Inside Man”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

In working with Denzel Washington for the fourth time, Spike Lee had the makings of a hit with the satisfying heist film “Inside Man.” Co-star Jodie Foster was coming off her blockbuster hit “Flightplan,” while Clive Owen was breaking out as an A-list actor. To date, this is the only film where Lee came on board as a hired director; he didn’t write or produce in any capacity. Yet it’s his highest-grossing title, as well as his only film to hit number one at the box office during its opening weekend. Lee has always wanted to make the sequel.

Set in New York, Owen plays a bank robber looking to pull off the perfect theft. He’s thought of every scenario that could go right and wrong, and has to play chess with Washington’s detective. Foster’s slick performance as “fixer” Madeleine White adds to the intrigue and suspense, along with the supporting characters (Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Christopher Plummer). —WM

9. “Training Day”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Robert Zuckerman/Outlaw/Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5883901t) Denzel Washington Training Day - 2001 Director: Antoine Fuqua Outlaw/Warner Bros USA Scene Still Action/Adventure

Denzel Washington in “Training Day”

Robert Zuckerman/Outlaw/Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

When “Training Day” came out, Denzel Washington didn’t have much left to prove, beyond winning a Best Actor Oscar (he had a supporting trophy for “Glory”). His 1999 performance in “Hurricane” had been overlooked, but then came his four collaborations with Antoine Fuqua. In the first, urban classic “Training Day,” Washington reinvented his persona. As corrupt Detective Alonzo Harris, he finds himself paired with a new partner, Officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke). During their drives through crime-infested pockets of Los Angeles, Hoyt sees the dirty underworld that Harris loves, and is reluctant to join. He doesn’t know if Harris is his friend or foe. Fuqua made sure this wasn’t your ordinary buddy-buddy action-thriller cop film. In the most memorable scene, Harris proclaims, “King Kong ain’t got shit on me!” We hadn’t seen Washington play the bad guy before, and with his ferocious, dominating, and charismatic performance, the Oscar was his. —WM

8. “Dear White People”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Code Red/Duly Noted/Homegrow/REX/Shutterstock (5867645a) Tessa Thompson Dear White People - 2014 Director: Justin Simien / Adriana Serrano Code Red/Duly Noted/Homegrown Pictures/Roadside Attractions USA Scene Still Comedy/Drama

“Dear White People”

Code Red/Duly Noted/Homegrow/REX/Shutterstock

Tessa Thompson, lately of a Marvel tentpole (“Thor: Ragnarock”) and a hit show (“Westworld”), spent almost a decade as a working actor before filming her breakout role in “Dear White People” (2014), writer-director Justin Simien’s Sundance award-winning film that inspired the namesake Netflix series. As Sam White – an acerbic black college student/author who unnerves the white administration with her radio show – she broadcast missives such as, “The minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two,” and, “Dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.”

But her narrative is just one of several that forces members of the Winchester University community (and viewers) to question internalized angst about how they are perceived by strangers. Like “Atlanta,” the film explores how two members of the same race can have vastly different experiences depending on how dark their skin is, as well as why certain people can say and act one way, but not others. The racially-tinged hostilities build to a squirm-inducing party where the white school president’s son invites all attendees to wear blackface.—JM

Popular on IndieWire

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Film and tagged , , ,